Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Long and meandering posts about the public outrage about Cecil the lion: Part II, focus on hunting

Is there any pastime in America that stirs up as much emotion as hunting? As of 2010, according to the 2011 National Survey 
of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey, there were 13.7 million hunters in the United States, a group spending about $38.7 billion per year on hunting. A great many more people spend time watching wildlife in the outdoors—the same 2011 report says 71.8 million people pursue wildlife watching, though that number certainly includes many hunters who go out to observe or photograph wildlife outside hunting season. Wildlife watchers spend $54.9 billion dollars per year.

One presumes every one of those 13.7 million hunters is pro-hunting. The wildlife-watching group is more varied, including avid hunters, avowed anti-hunters, and just about everyone in between.

Hunting and fishing have been part of the fabric of American life since time immemorial—the source of most of the animal protein eaten by most First Americans as well as colonists and pioneers. Even as the meat from domesticated livestock became more readily available, rural Americans maintained hunting traditions long after many people flocking to cities cast aside rural life and all it entailed. Of course, many urban Americans escape the big city as often as they can, some making hunting or fishing trips into a new tradition. Even so, generation after generation, fewer and fewer Americans maintain their close ties with natural places.

Many people have decried the fact that fewer and fewer American children grow up playing outside and exploring nature on their own. Dan Ashe, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, wrote in the 2011 National Survey 
of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation:
When I was growing up, it was taken
 as a matter of faith that kids belonged outside. I grew up with 4 brothers, and during those long, hot Atlanta summers, it was common for our mom to holler, “You boys get outside, and don’t come back ‘til it’s dark.” It never occurred to me or my brothers to do anything else in our spare time but explore the world around us. The truth is, we had little else to do. But those experiences – waking up on frosty mornings and starting the campfire, scanning trees for a shot at a scampering gray squirrel in the dawn light, scouring creek beds for crawdads and other fishing bait, or simply of the fun we had tramping through the forest – shaped who I am, and drew me to a career in conservation.
One of my heroes, Aldo Leopold, was an avid hunter his whole life, but started seeing American Woodcocks a little differently after thrilling at their spring sky dance. He wrote, “No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.”

I’m a non-hunter, and one who viscerally hates the killing of animals. I do eat some meat, and recognize that even with the burgeoning numbers of vegetarians among us, our species is by nature omnivorous. Healthy vegans must conscientiously and consistently balance various food items to ensure that they get the proteins meat-eaters consume naturally. Because I do eat meat, it would be hypocritical of me to hate agriculture, though I reserve the right to look at it with clear eyes, and to decry dangerous, unethical, or cruel practices. 

I have too much love and respect for many of the hunters I’ve known personally, and too much admiration and respect for Aldo Leopold and other conservationists, to hate hunting. It’s fundamentally human to feel empathy and compassion for other humans and for animals. I don’t think people always recognize or respect this deeply important characteristic, which may be an essential one for a social species with young that remain dependent for so many years. But it’s also fundamentally human to enjoy tracking and hunting down animals, an essential characteristic in a non-scavenging, omnivorous species. Aggression, too, is a fundamentally human quality.

Each of these characteristics may be stronger or weaker in different individuals. Our society looks down on dysfunctional people whose sympathy for animals falls at either extreme of the spectrum, from pitiable “crazy cat ladies” to the pathetic people who torture animals. Healthy levels of aggression fall in a wide area between extremes, too.

I’m pretty low on the aggressiveness scale and high on the empathy scale, making me by nature a non-hunter. But I can hardly deny the thrill of hunting to those who enjoy it when I myself enjoy watching Peregrine Falcons in a stoop (as long as I wasn’t first watching the bird at the bottom of the stoop). In graduate school in the Fisheries and Wildlife Department at Michigan State, I took wildlife management classes, and I try hard not to let my natural antipathy color my judgments about hunting and wildlife management. That said, there have been many times when I’ve wished hunters would extend to me that same courtesy. 

The very underpinnings of any democracy depend on citizens trusting one another and accepting the many differences among themselves even as they engage in reasoned debate. Our country’s Constitution is grounded in a preamble calling on “we the people” to “promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” The wealth of natural resources in this country, and their use by all of us who observe, photograph, and hunt wildlife, are certainly among those blessings of liberty. Ensuring that they remain sustainable for ourselves and our posterity is a fundamental obligation of our government in promoting the general welfare of every citizen, both for “use” and because we increasingly understand how the complex interweavings of plants and animals in every ecosystem affect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.

Wildlife management was originally developed as a tool for ensuring the sustainability of game species. The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and the Heath Hen were proof that a dangerous combination of overhunting and habitat loss could be lethal for entire species. Rapidly declining Wood Ducks at the end of the 19th Century, due to market hunting for meat and feathers as well as to habitat loss, inspired urgent work among hunters as well as women concerned about the fashion industry’s use of feathers in hats.

Hunters and various Audubon societies became important forces behind wildlife conservation. The Boone and Crockett Club, founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887, was an instrumental force behind passage of the Lacey Act of 1900, which put an end to market hunting; the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which afforded complete protection to most native American birds and required those birds defined as game species to be managed sustainably by state and federal agencies; the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934, requiring all waterfowl hunters to buy a Duck Stamp, the proceeds going entirely to waterfowl habitat acquisition; and the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, which created an excise tax on all firearms and ammunition, the funds earmarked to manage wildlife and habitat.

In subsequent decades, the Boone and Crockett Club became the main American organization promoting big game hunting and maintaining a scoring system for big game records. This competitive trophy hunting has directly led to state natural resource agencies building up deer populations to higher-than-healthy levels, and to game farms where virulent diseases of captive animals, such as chronic wasting disease, have been transferred to wildlife. But in 1927, when the Boone and Crockett Club was still primarily focused on conservation, as wetlands were drained and waterfowl numbers were dwindling, many members who were waterfowl hunters branched into a more focused offshoot organization called American Wild Fowlers. In 1930, they were absorbed into a conservation group called More Game Birds in America. When Ducks Unlimited organized in 1937, this organization was absorbed into it.

Ducks Unlimited has a wonderful track record in restoring grassland and watersheds, replanting forests, educating landowners, conservation easements, and acquiring land. They remained fairly neutral in the debate to ban lead shot in waterfowl hunting, though when it was passed, they took a leading role in educating hunters to deal with the change. 

Even as conservation became a focus of many hunters, hunting practices and ethics have continued to evolve. Aldo Leopold wrote about the day he, as a young man, watched a wolf die, in his essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” (published in 1949 in A Sand County Almanac):
We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.
In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks. 
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view. 
Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers. 
I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. 

Although wildlife management is supposed to be grounded in fundamental ecological principles, conflicting pressures on managers have often led to short-sighted practices. When Aldo Leopold wrote that essay in 1949, it was already obvious that an overpopulation of deer leads to ecological disasters, yet decades later, in the mid-1970s, one major, stated goal of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources was to raise the state’s White-tailed Deer population to a million. At the same time, the Wisconsin DNR was actively working to increase its Canada Goose population. Most reasonable people can see pretty clearly that achieving those goals has not worked out well in many ways.

Although many hunting regulations are grounded in science, wildlife managers can’t help but be swayed by pressure from the groups that fund them through hunting licenses and Pittman-Robertson excise taxes. Lead shot raining down onto the ground and water, and shot and bullets in carrion and gut piles left by hunters, have long been known to give scavengers and birds that pick up grit lead poisoning. Waterfowl hunters were first to accept the limiting of their hunt to non-toxic shot. But to this day, upland game can be shot with lead in most areas. Lead from bullets was established over a decade ago to be the primary cause of mortality for the California Condor, whose reintroduced population is hanging by a thread, but many hunters, along with the NRA, banded together to fight tooth and nail against banning lead ammo in California. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a ban within a small zone of the state, which took effect in 2008. Condors of course weren’t aware of that, and continued to feed on lead-laced carcasses outside that area. In 2013, Jerry Brown signed into law a statewide ban, which won’t be fully implemented until 2019. Again, despite the known damage to an endangered species (as well as to other scavengers and grit-eating birds), a significant part of the hunting community along with the NRA fought bitterly against that ban.

Venison shot with lead bullets is often laced with lead that can be ingested by the families of hunters. Because of the risks of lead poisoning, more and more non-profits are refusing to accept gifts of venison. Yet wildlife managers continue to defer to gun-rights groups that don't want any regulations on ammunition, even when it's in their own self-interest.

Many wildlife managers fought to prevent the rapid expansion of game farms in the 1980s and 90s, predicting that transporting elk, deer, and other animals from place to place would lead to disease outbreaks, such as chronic wasting disease. This is one issue where both hunters and property rights advocates split, depending on their personal stake. Those deer hunters focused on hunting in traditional wild areas to obtain venison for the table, and those property owners who hunt wild game on their own land, have been outspoken in calling for halts to transporting captive game animals from other countries, states, or areas. But game farm owners, hunters focused on trophy animals, and hunters who prefer “canned hunts” to gambling time and money on an uncertain outcome in natural areas, want to minimize regulation. Unfortunately, the Boone and Crockett Club’s registration system encourages the worst practices, by allowing trophy hunters to register captive-bred deer with antlers too freakishly large for survival in the wild. The big money involved in canned hunts for trophies (a single 2-day hunt on a game farm can costs thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars, vs. the negligible cost of a hunting license), along with the money involved in these game farms selling meat, hard and soft antlers, deer urine (a surprisingly large business), and photo ops make this a lucrative business.

Despite growing calls for tighter regulations by conservation organizations and human health advocates, the game farm industry has managed to lobby for and win relaxed rules and expanded opportunities for deer and elk farming, even as we’re seeing absolute proof that dangerous game farm diseases are spreading to wildlife. Chronic wasting disease, which manifests as mad cow disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, was first reported in North America in a captive mule deer in Colorado in 1967, and then in captive mule and black-tailed deer in Wyoming in 1979. Between 1981 and 1985, it was first found in wild deer and elk in Colorado and Wyoming. It made it to a captive elk farm in Saskatchewan in 1996, and several elk farms in South Dakota in 1997. Since then, it has mushroomed on game farms and, in turn, in wild deer and elk. Since 2002, in the area in southern Wisconsin where the disease is most prevalent, prevalence in adult male deer has risen from 8-10 percent to over 25 percent, and in adult female deer from about 3-4 percent to more than 10 percent.

Yet, despite the real danger of this disease for humans, livestock, and wildlife,  Idaho, which once required all farmed elk that die to be tested for chronic wasting disease, recently reduced mandatory testing to just 10 percent. Other states are also easing disease testing requirements and restrictions to prevent it from spreading. Those hunters who have historically been among our most vocal conservation proponents are now being out-lobbied by trophy and canned hunters. 

Tragically, due to all kinds of factors including virulent attacks on all hunting by anti-hunting groups, many principled hunters are reluctant to join forces with birders and non-hunting conservation groups, and many anti-hunting conservationists refuse to distinguish among traditional ethical hunting practices and modern canned hunts.

At the same time, the NRA and hunting community have both changed dramatically. I used to read my brother’s magazines when I was a child. American Rifleman and Field and Stream didn’t used to be the least bit political. The NRA was a true membership organization focused on promoting responsible gun ownership rather than on fueling paranoia about gun rights. Hunting organizations didn’t try to stir up anger at politicians, but simply worked with them when necessary for conservation purposes and otherwise seemed mostly interested in promoting safe and ethical hunting practices.

Meanwhile, non-hunters were in large part like me, people who didn’t participate, but didn’t judge hunters, who seemed to be doing a fine job of policing themselves and conserving wildlife.

Hunter numbers started dwindling as America became more and more urbanized and removed from nature. At the same time, animal rights advocates became more vocal and more generalized, moving from attacking specific cruel practices to advocating for an end to all animal research, all animal husbandry, and all hunting. Hunters were increasingly placed on the defensive. Now tragically, here we are, splintered and bearing grudges, the two groups most passionate about protecting wildlife feuding rather than working together.

Back in 1976, I was asked to take the anti-hunting side in a debate about hunting in a wildlife management class. After it was over, I realized my professor had expected me to take the traditional animal-rights, “protect Bambi” stance. That is certainly what my pro-hunting opponent had prepared for. Instead, I based my case on the many ways that pressure by hunters had led to serious wildlife management mistakes. 

In this same professor’s ecology class, we’d learned that all species are interconnected. I argued that because wildlife management focuses exclusively on game species, important components of natural communities were being ignored. For example, we were taught that one important management practice is to break up large stands of grasslands and forests to promote the “edge effect.” I argued that this practice was directly contributing to burgeoning numbers of Brown-headed Cowbirds flooding into the East to parasitize the nests of more and more vulnerable songbirds, including our own state’s Kirtland’s Warbler. Pheasants did indeed thrive with hedgerows, but I pointed out that pheasants are not native birds, and so deserved a lower level of protection and management than did native grassland species such as the Greater Prairie-Chickens that were disappearing right then from Michigan—they require uninterrupted, true grasslands.

I argued that the Michigan DNR’s current goal of building up the White-tailed Deer herd would lead to a lot of habitat damage (I think I quoted Leopold's wolf essay here), giving hunters easier game at the expense of other species.

This was when the debate over lead shot for waterfowl hunting was raging. I made the point that there was a lot of scientific proof that ducks, geese, swans, and other water birds, and all manner of grassland birds as well, were ingesting lead shot and dying or suffering effects of sub-lethal levels of lead. Predators and scavengers picking up wounded and dead game were ingesting dangerous levels of lead, too. As long as hunters defended or used lead shot, to me they were violating a fundamental principle of ethics, their hunting propped up by shortsighted game management rather than true ecosystem management. 

The student I was debating seemed at a complete loss to address any of these points, but my professor gave him the win anyway, saying my arguments were “grossly unfair.”

Later that very spring, I was one of the last people to see Greater Prairie-Chickens in Michigan, on their only remaining lek in the state. By the early ‘80s, they had vanished entirely, in part because of misguided management for Ring-necked Pheasants.

I’ve engaged in a few debates with hunters since then, in public hearings when controversial issues were decided. When the Minnesota DNR proposed a dove-hunting season after almost a hundred years of protection, I couldn’t help but dislike the very idea—these are backyard feeder birds for me. But I realized that the Mourning Dove is the most heavily hunted game bird in the country, and its numbers remain strong even in the areas where hunting is heaviest. I voiced no objections to hunting them in Minnesota, but did ask in my testimony at the public hearing that the hunt be limited to non-toxic shot and that the season be closed along the hawk migration corridor along the north shore of Lake Superior during American Kestrel migration. Neither of these concerns were taken the least bit seriously by the DNR.

Although Minnesota’s Mourning Dove season is a new one in the state, the hunters engaging in Mourning Dove hunting are the old-fashioned variety who go afield for sport and meat, not trophies. Common as doves are in much of the state, hunters have no guarantee whatsoever that they’ll get one, much less the limit, when they set out on a days’ hunt. Canned and guided hunts require neither the skill nor the sportsmanship of old-fashioned hunting. Instead of the thrills and uncertainties of taking your chances and dealing with the vagaries of nature, the new style of hunting is a “you get what you pay for” enterprise.

Frustration with unprincipled and unsportsmanlike canned hunting and the increase in trophy hunting is growing, and growing more acrimonious, right when the ugly tenor of online interactions has bled over into nasty face-to-face encounters. After my dove season testimony, a couple of hunters cornered me and were extremely threatening, one even seeming to cradle something on his hip as if to warn me that he was armed. They also recited my address and my children’s names in a menacing way. Hunters certainly have just cause to feel unfairly beleaguered by anti-hunters, but it goes both ways.

In Minnesota and throughout the upper Midwest, debates about wolf hunting for decades have been far more passionate and acrimonious than the dove debate was. People living in areas populated by wolves can’t help but be fearful of them, with some cause, though not quite as much as some people think. The last known killing of a person by a wolf in Minnesota was in 1989, when a 3-year-old was killed by her family’s captive wolf in Forest Lake, and the last previous case of a wolf killing a human in the state was over a century earlier, in 1871 in a logging camp near Pine City. Meanwhile, a few to several people die in the state every year in auto-collisions with white-tailed deer.

Despite everything Aldo Leopold and other ecologists have preached, deer hunters can’t help but blame frustrations about deer numbers on wolves. But it seems ironic that they don’t grant the same legitimacy to wolves hunting for their livelihood that they grant themselves hunting for sport and supplemental food.

Before they were afforded protection by the Endangered Species Act, wolves were considered fair game in Minnesota at any time. Minnesotans have always been legally allowed to protect themselves and other people from wolf attacks by killing menacing wolves, and before wolf protection laws kicked in, livestock owners in the state could protect their animals by killing wolves anywhere near their property. Aldo Leopold was representative of the ethics of a long era when he acknowledged that he shot any wolf he could in his trigger-happy youth.

Despite so many decades of shooting them without constraint before federal protection kicked in, few people have traditionally eaten wolves or lions—meat from predators isn’t normally considered palatable compared to that from herbivores. In Alaska, wolves are frequently hunted by air. There’s little interest in picking up the carcass for food, though trophy hunters do retrieve the head and skin for taxidermy.

As with lion trophy hunting in Africa, wolf hunting in Minnesota is extremely controversial, in part because of the danger, real and perceived, that these top predators pose to human beings. In Africa, lions are far from the most dangerous animals. Elephants, crocodiles, hippos, snakes, tsetse flies, mosquitoes, and other humans kill many more people every year than lions do, but lions still kill an average of 70 people each year. In comparison, North American wolves kill fewer than one person per decade.

As a top predator, healthy population numbers of wolves are orders of magnitude smaller than their prey species. In Minnesota, the deer population is estimated at about a million, while the population of wolves, in winter 2013-14, was estimated at just over 2,400. 

Historically, Minnesota has always had a wolf population, and some people have argued that even though their numbers nationwide justify getting endangered species protection, they shouldn’t get that same level of protection here, where their numbers are healthy according to credible wolf biologists. Various pro-hunting elements pressured the US Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the species in the Upper Midwest, and reasonable wolf biologists helped F&W develop a management plan, so the Minnesota DNR prepared the state management plan to add the wolf as a game species. That is how it came to pass in January 2012 that wolves went, on the same day, from being a federally listed endangered species to a legal game animal in Minnesota.

I don’t like the idea of anyone extinguishing what Leopold called “that fierce green fire” for pleasure, but I’m not a wolf biologist, and cannot formulate a reasoned opinion about the wolf hunt based on anything but gut feelings, so I’ve never debated either side of the issue. Although few traditional hunters are interested hunting wolves, they usually maintain solidarity with other hunters, at least staying out of the discussion. Before the wolf-hunting season opened in 2012, 2013, and 2014, anti-wolf-hunting groups worked passionately to prevent that year’s hunt. A lawsuit filed by the Humane Society of the United States led to a December 2014 US Federal Court ruling ordering a stop to wolf hunting throughout the Lower 48.

Without understanding the urge to kill wolves, I could still understand the frustrations of wolf-hunting proponents at that sudden judicial intervention, especially after so many prominent wolf biologists, like David Mech of the US Geological Survey, testified supporting a well-managed wolf hunt in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. On the other hand, one angry hunter wrote on the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association Facebook page, “All this partisan judge did was declare open season on wolves. Shoot, shovel, shut-up,” apparently a widespread sentiment about taking the law into their own hands and turning their backs on wildlife laws. So much virulent anger on every side makes it impossible to work out reasonable compromises.

All this acrimony and frustration that have been building for decades about all kinds of hunting issues exploded when Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killed Cecil the Lion. The ugly, over-the-top fury toward Palmer played out mostly on social media, where photoshopped images of Palmer’s head sticking out of a trophy plaque on a wall, demands for the death penalty, and threats against his dental practice cropped up everywhere. Even though this was hyperbole, as the threats to my own face by Mourning Dove hunt proponents were, Palmer definitely felt in jeopardy and went into hiding.

Lion hunting is controversial for many reasons. Palmer paid $55,000 to his guide to conduct his hunt—whenever that much money is involved, ethical shortcuts and undue pressure on regulators can taint any process involving endangered wildlife. Many people defend trophy hunting specifically because the huge amounts of money involved help ensure that people will work for sustainable lion numbers, though little of it goes to conservation. But just has it has long been in the United States, hunting is a critical component in sustainable wildlife management in Africa. Richard Leakey discussed Kenya's hunting ban in a 2006 address at Strathmore Business School in Nairobi:

If you fly over parts of Tsavo today—and I challenge anyone to do so, if you have the eyes for it – you can see lines of snares set out in funnel traps that extend four or five miles. Tens of thousands of animals are being killed annually for the meat business. Carnivores are being decimated in the same snares and discarded. I am not a propagandist on this issue, but when my friends say we are very concerned that hunting will be reintroduced in Kenya, let me put it to you: hunting has never been stopped in Kenya, and there is more hunting in Kenya today than at any time since independence. (Thousands) of animals are being killed annually with no control. Snaring, poisoning, and shooting are common things. So when you have a fear of debate about hunting, please don’t think there is no hunting. Think of a policy to regulate it, so that we can make it sustainable. That is surely the issue, because an illegal crop, an illegal market is unsustainable in the long term, whatever it is. And the market in wildlife meat is unsustainable as currently practiced, and something needs to be done.
Of course, sustainable management of wildlife requires hunters to follow the rules. Unless poaching is prosecuted consistently, that is impossible. Walter Palmer claims he believed that everything he did on the hunt was legal and ethical, but that raises serious questions about whether hunting laws can be enforced at all when big money is part of the equation. 

Palmer has an international reputation as a top big game hunter, with all kinds of entries in Safari International’s record books and a glowing 2009 profile in the New York Times. If someone with his experience truly believes that baiting and luring a lion off a protected national park to private land is ethical, and if he’s representative of other members of Safari International, that seems a legitimate argument against all trophy hunting. 

Also, regardless of whether he thought he was acting legally, the standard is supposed to be that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Conservationists have been growing increasingly frustrated by the way so many people shooting Whooping Cranes and other non-game animals get off with hand slaps by making that same argument. The only way Zimbabwe authorities can prevent similar cases in the future is if they prosecute the players in this case in court and, if they’re found guilty, give them a legitimately harsh penalty.

Palmer has a history of lying about his hunting practices that makes his claims of innocence now sound disingenuous. In 2006, he had a permit to hunt bears within a certain bear-hunting zone near Phillips, Wisconsin. But his hunting party killed a black bear 40 miles outside this zone. According to court documents, the group agreed to claim that the bear was hunted within the legal area. They transported the carcass to a registration station where they certified the animal had been killed legally, and then the carcass was transported to Palmer’s residence. Palmer was fined $3,000 and given a year's probation for the felony conviction.

Regardless of whether Palmer is found innocent or guilty if tried in the U.S. or Zimbabwe, the court of public opinion needs to calm down and start looking carefully at bigger issues. People who claim to be logical and dispassionate proponents of wise game management need to start taking into account human nature, which involves passionate feelings about animals. People who are passionate animal defenders need to take a step back and consider the value of wildlife management, including hunting, in protecting wildlife in long-term, sustainable ways. 

And all of us need to open our hearts and minds to our fellow Americans, accepting that feeling empathy and love for individual animals and legally hunting animals for food and sport are both ways that decent human beings have engaged with the natural world for generations. Compassion for animals, is not inconsistent with compassion for our fellow humans, including hunters. And any development of legitimate wildlife management policies must take into account the voices of everyone with a stake in the future of wildlife, hunters and non-hunters both.